Wednesday, November 5, 2014


I was born dark to two fair-skinned, pale-eyed people, who went on to have four more fair-skinned, pale-eyed children. My skin had a yellow cast in winter and became as brown as an Alaskan summer could make it when the weather grew warm. My eyes were dark brown and so was my hair.

One of my sisters was so white that she blistered even under Alaska’s pallid sunlight. Another had fair skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair that was tinged with gold. She was silently recognized as the pretty one.

I always told myself that I was proud of looking different from the rest of my family. At first I was certain I was adopted, until at last my mother showed me my birth certificate. She told me how delighted she had been to have a brown-eyed baby after one of her brothers had told her this was genetically impossible, citing the Mendelian theory. Then she told me what my brown-eyed grandmother had said when she first saw me, words that had become a family joke. “Why, she looks just like Santa.” Santa was my parents’ iceman; they still were a fixture in post-war Manhattan.

Already a small snob, I wanted a more exalted resemblance than that, and pored over photos in issues of Life magazine. The only children who looked like me were black and white images of emaciated children in the Subcontinent and I began to hate my hair because I thought it made me look like the Swami Yogananda, a popular mystic of the time.

Every Halloween, my mother costumed me as a gypsy. To people who didn’t know us, I probably appeared to be the adopted Alaska Native child in a white family. After all, the Native kids whom I met in school looked more like me than I did my sisters.

Skin color was a big issue in territorial Alaska and prevailed into statehood. When I became an adult, my mother told me her friends had criticized her for allowing me to become best friends with a Tlingit high school classmate. “Allowed me,” I exploded and she looked at me sadly and said, “I know.”

What she didn’t know was that when we moved to Anchorage, I hung out with a bunch of kids from Nenana and Attu at the pool hall on the corner of Third and C, and made occasional evening forays into the cafes on Fourth Avenue, the ones next to the bars. I was easily accepted there, I fit in with my homestead upbringing and dark coloring. One night a gallant young G.I. insisted on taking me home after we’d had a brief conversation, and my parents told me to stay off Fourth Avenue after dark. But by then I’d become comfortable enough in the pool hall that I’d drop in during the day to warm up on my way home from school. I didn’t stop until one afternoon the manager offered to set me up in my own apartment as soon as I graduated.

When I read about “people of color,” I feel as though that’s where I belong. But I don’t. And yet when I’m in a group of fair-skinned, pale-eyed people, I always feel as though I’m not one of them either.

Humans are pack animals. We herd together and we expect our herd to look like us—but I didn’t look like mine. The closest I ever came to this was when I was living in Thailand, where Bangkok’s relentless sunlight made my skin the same color as that of my Thai friends. Still they denied that—I was farang and farang were fair-skinned so I had fair skin, Not even placing my brown arm beside their own would shake off that false syllogism.

I sometimes wonder if I would have become a writer without the special outsider-observer status that my color gives me. Sometimes I think of learning Spanish fluently and moving to Mexico—but here’s the crux of the matter. Under my olive skin lies invisible privilege, centuries of fair-skinned people and the knowledge that their bloodline has never been thought a lesser one. This is encoded in my DNA. My skin doesn’t prove it but the official record tied to my US passport does.

Even though I love looking as dark as a Thai woman, rarely would I ever choose to change places with one. I’m too attached to my individuality, my sense of privacy, my bubble of personal space, all legacies of white privilege that have been my birthright.

And yet in the stories I grew up reading, Snow White married the prince, while her darker sister Rose Red was stuck with his brother. Rowena, blonde and pink, married Ivanhoe but dark Rebecca was not so lucky. Golden hair, blue eyes, creamy skin all prevailed. Like it or not, that tends to stick with a kid. And like it or not, I will always be an other—not a person of color, not the fair-haired one, but firmly on the dark side. I tell myself what I always have, that is what has made me a rebel, an explorer, an independent woman and I like it that way.


Anonymous said...

"Under my olive skin lies invisible privilege, centuries of fair-skinned people and the knowledge that their bloodline has never been thought a lesser one. This is encoded in my DNA." Very insightful, and something not a lot of people are ready or willing to recognize.

Janet Brown said...

I almost didn't post this because in some ways it seemed presumptuous. But since it's honest, I thought I'd toss it into the world. Thank you, Katia. I look forward to the time when we can talk about this and many other things.